By Michael Farber
April 13, 2011

In the beginning, there was the blue and green uniform with a hockey stick "C." If you had ever tried to leave your house wearing that color combination, your mother would have accused you of dressing in the dark.

Then there were the gold-red-black Flying V jerseys. A second-grader on B.C.'s Lower Mainland should have demanded her Crayola box back.

Eventually this sartorial horror show on ice foisted that ridiculous skate logo upon the hockey fashion world. Then came various versions of orcas, which were either menacing or cartoonish or arty or something.

With four decades and zero Stanley Cups, the Vancouver Canucks have never been accused of dressing for success, you know? But in the next nine weeks or so, we should know if Champagne dribbled down the front of those jerseys makes them look any classier.

After more than four decades -- through Roger Neilson's towel and King Richard's saves and Pavel Bure's Mach 1 speed and the annual meltdowns -- this looks like a Vancouver spring. Certainly the metrics scream a Canucks' Cup. They averaged almost one more goal per game than they allowed, a league-best plus-77. They scored on almost a quarter of their power plays. They won some 55 percent of their face-offs. They won the Presidents' Trophy by 10 points. And while every team has reset its odometer at zeros and regular-season accomplishments are almost as forgotten as Gil Stein's fleeting time as NHL president, it is worth noting that the best regular-season team has won the Stanley Cup three times since 2001. And only two who won the Presidents' Trophy by double digits (Detroit in 2004, Washington in 2010) failed to take the championship.

The NHL, of course, is not the etched-in-stone NBA, where the chalk almost always wins. (Last spring, the dynamic Capitals were quickly a chalk outline on the rioting streets of Montreal.) But if things get dicey during the next two-plus months, and they almost surely will, the Canucks can take succor in the firm knowledge that they ruled the NHL this season.

This is the best and seemingly most confident Canucks team since the expansion franchise was born in 1970. Although there is a dearth of Stanley Cup pedigree -- Mikael Samuelsson and uh... -- the role of Cup favorite seems to rest lightly on their shoulders. Vancouver is usually a fabulous, albeit squirrelly, hockey town in which the citizenry hopes for the best and always anticipates the worst. From afar, the civic mood seems to have altered. Maybe it was the near universal success of the Olympics in Vancouver 14 months ago or maybe it's a belatedly healthy complement of defensemen on a team that was obliged to use 14 blueliners during the season, but -- at a distance of some 2,300 miles -- some of the fretfulness seems to have vanished.

There are some teams in the salary cap era that just look the part of Stanley Cup favorite; Vancouver has it. There is an elite line featuring Daniel and Henrik Sedin; secondary scoring provided by second-line center Ryan Kesler, who has had a breakout season and could be a Hart and Selke finalist; and ample if not spectacular depth in the bottom six forwards despite Manny Malhotra's season-ending eye injury. (Put it another way: if Malhotra, as superb as he was without the puck and in the faceoff circle, is the stumbling block, the Canucks are more fragile than most people think.)

The defense, which finally played again as a group at the end of the regular season, has a shutdown pair in Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis, a nifty attacking pair in Alex Edler and Christian Ehrhoff, and a solid veteran pair in the brittle Sami Salo and Keith Ballard. And goalie Roberto Luongo, 32, who had played in at least 65 regular-season games every season but one since 2001-02 -- he participated in 68 and another five Olympic matches last year -- finally enters the spring without having been overworked. He played in 60 games, backed ably by Cory Schneider. More significantly, Luongo saw fewer shots than 10 other NHL goalies. The result: a .928 save percentage, his best since 2003-04, and a career-low 2.11 goals-against average.

Alain Vigneault now ranks with Detroit's Mike Babcock and Philadelphia's Peter Laviolette among coaches who run a particularly tidy bench. Philadelphia is the only team other than the Canucks that exudes the same kind of playoff aura -- at least among its 18 skaters when Chris Pronger is healthy -- despite its late-season stumble. (Flyers goaltending is, alas, another issue.)

If Vancouver has the right to feel queasy, it will be at the sight of its first-round opponent: the Chicago Blackhawks. There has been a predictable sameness to the Hawks-Canucks second-round meetings the last two springs: each a six-game series, each with a Luongo meltdown, particularly shoddy play at home by the Canucks, and the Blackhawks' physical dominance. (Chicago won all three playoff games in Vancouver last spring, and one of three in 2009.)

During the 2010-11 regular season, the Canucks seemed to tame its bête noire -- if you ignore their 7-1 loss to the Hawks in Vancouver last November. The Canucks won two of the four meetings in regulation and outscored the Hawks, 8-5, in the three games that were not debacles.

A year ago, the Canucks would have needed the collected works of Freud to get past Chicago. Now if the Canucks get some timely saves and power play goals -- Chicago's penalty killing has ranged from mediocre to embarrassing -- and manipulate the Sedin matchup away from defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, it should be enough.

No Canadian-based franchise has won a Stanley Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens; and this sort of thing is a major deal north of the border. Given that the three top forwards on the Canucks are Swedes and an American and that a fellow from Rochester, N.Y., is the captain of the Canadiens, you wouldn't think it should matter, but it does. The national pom-pom waving during aborted runs by Calgary in 2004, Edmonton in 2006, and Ottawa in 2007 served as reminders that a nation with roughly one tenth of the population of the United States can turn itself into the world's biggest village every spring. Old hockey loyalties will be suspended, for the most part, and the Canucks will be the local team that stretches from sea to sea -- assuming they stick around the playoffs longer than the Canadiens.

Anyway, the playoffs are starting and the Canucks are looking good -- even in those jerseys.

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